(Reviewed on Xbox One)
In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream…With Joy!
You’d have thought that after the release of the pretty much universally accepted train wreck that was Aliens: Colonial Marines back in 2013 that it was a very real possibility that we might never see another game set in the Alien franchise ever again, let alone get a spectacularly good one in the near future. However, within approximately the space of two years, we were collectively proven wrong. Creative Assembly delivered Alien: Isolation in November 2014, and it’s one of the freshest, most inventive, and cruelly difficult survival horror experiences to hit PC and consoles in recent years. To cut right to the chase; I absolutely love it.
The fact that we even have a decent game set in the Alien franchise following the toxic aftermath of Gearbox’s abortion makes Creative Assembly’s excellent efforts even more incredible in my opinion; fair enough, Creative Assembly’s game had already been long in development when Colonial Marines launched, but Gearbox’s game left such a sour taste in fan’s mouths that it seriously felt like it had totally killed off any remaining appetite for another game in the Alien franchise.
That was before Isolation had chance to punch out of its incubating development chest cavity and terrorise the survival horror crowd.
But before we delve under the lovely smooth, sleek, glistening carapace of Creative Assembly’s excellent experience, let’s take a few moments to further explore the toxic context the game launched in. That’s right, the aforementioned big white elephant (or Xenomorph) in the room, Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines.
Game Over Man! Game Over!
Back in February of 2013 when it launched at fan’s wallets like a money-grabbing Facehugger, Gearbox Software’s Colonial Marines delivered on none of the overblown and overhyped potential it promised, and displayed a disgusting level of dishonesty and deceit in the process. The game became the go-to industry standard example of appalling bait and switch tactics, underhand last-minute day of release review embargoes and before the glut of broken and unfinished games that washed up in the latter end of 2014, it was one of the most universally derided games in recent memory.
Whilst it’s by no means the worst game I’ve ever played (hey, wouldn’t that be a fun piece to write), it certainly isn’t anywhere near what I’d consider a good game, and certainly not one that lives up to the pedigree of the Alien franchise or the James Cameron film it’s supposed to follow (yes, you read that right, follow – it’s actually considered a legit part of the Alien cannon – fuck knows why). What made it so offensive in particular was down to the way the game was marketed; how drastically different the finished product was from all the pre-release footage and gameplay sections that Gearbox kept excitedly trundling out for both press and fans to see.
With the pre-release materials showcasing fantastic looking lighting effects, intelligent Xenomorph AI, awesome looking powerloader combat scenes and, can you believe it, lifelike marine squadmates to fight alongside, the game looked great. It was basically everything you could ever hope for in an Aliens game, and it looked like one that appeared to show a great respect for its source material. Yeah, I know, from what we saw in the E3 demos prior to release, that the game was not exactly doing anything drastically different or breaking new ground per se. It probably wasn’t going to be redefining first person shooters anytime soon or providing anything other than a cheesy rehashed plot of the film with even cheesier characters and dialogue. But all of that didn’t matter; it simply looked like a great marriage of a decent first person shooter experience mixed with the Aliens franchise in an exciting and respectful way – something fans had been clamouring to get their hands on for years.
With Gearbox at the development helm, things were looking very exciting indeed. A development studio with a strong history stretching back to the early ’90s 3D Realms days of Duke Nukem, and with a known pedigree for quality most recently affirmed with the highly-acclaimed FPS shooter/RPG looter Borderlands 2 which released mere months before Colonial Marines‘ launch, they seemed like the perfect choice of developer to finally do the Alien franchise video game justice.
In particular, it was the studio’s early work on the Half-Life expansion packs that garnered them a reputation among gamers for treating external franchise source materials with the utmost respect, diligence and care it deserves. In fact, Gearbox Software’s very first major project was 1999’s Half-Life: Opposing Force, a great expansion to the original Valve classic which basically was Aliens: Colonial Marines in all but name; you play as a soldier of a crack US marine platoon who drop into the Black Mesa Research Facility of the main game to wipe out the alien invaders running amok. Sound familiar?
With all these advantages behind it, what on earth could possibly go wrong with Colonial Marines?
Unfortunately, the answer was a lot. Things went very fucking wrong indeed. FUBAR, you might even say if you were a colonial marine.
In the end, Colonial Marines, for all its hype and hyperbole, was nothing more than a clumsily cobbled together series of Alien-themed shooting galleries, with mediocre…well, everything really. Aside from a couple of decent one-off horror/stealth themed sections, the game was a gloopy mess of poor writing, hopelessly inadequate AI, weak Call of Duty corridor shooter sections, massively mis-represented graphics, dull lighting effects and poorly-implemented co-op features to name just a few of its plethora of faults. Finally, to top it all off, if you did manage to heroically slog your way through the entire campaign, an unfinished bolt-on DLC tease ending was your final reward; adding yet another insult to a by now very much gangrenous injury.
Overall, there was just this great big lacklustre feeling of disappointment permeating every aspect of the game’s design. The final game looked nothing like what had been previously shown; in fact, it was a hell of a lot worse than anything we’d been previously shown. Amazingly, the short E3 2011 demo looked more entertaining than the final game, and it actually looked like progress had been going backwards between that demo and the finished product, with many features and scenes that had been stripped out completely.
Obviously, things are of course subject to change during the course of a game’s development – it’s why it’s called development after all – and tech demos and E3 presentations are typically small, highly polished vertical slices of the finished thing. But when there’s such a huge divide between the final game you buy in the shop or online and the work-in-progress materials that the game was shown off with – worse, the game looks far worse than the work-in-progress materials – then you know something has gone horribly wrong.
What made the whole debacle so offensive to fans though was the way that Gearbox appeared to have been blatantly lying through their teeth as they falsely advertised a product they knew was nowhere near what they had so eagerly promised for so long – they pulled the classic day of release review embargo trick, which is almost always a sign of something rotten afoot.
Today, if you go back and revisit some of the Gearbox Vidocs and PR interviews that were filmed during the development of the game, they’re just laughably bad and downright dishonest. Perhaps most amusingly, the Wii U version of the game, which was heavily promoted in the run-up to release as the ideal way to play the game (using the Wii U’s gamepad as a tactile motion sensor), and was purportedly going to be the “the best-looking console version of Aliens: Colonial Marines” was quickly scrapped only months after the negative reception of the PC and other console releases. The benefit of hindsight eh?
Unsurprisingly then, much like the wild spray of the Xenomorph’s acid blood from a close-quarters 12-guage shotgun blast, Gearbox Software’s Colonial Marines burned a deep bitter hole in the hearts and minds of many Alien fans; leaving a sizzling wound that can still be felt in the gaming community’s collective consciousness to this day.
It’s true; ask any gamer today what they think about Aliens: Colonial Marines, and they will likely hiss loudly at you, Xeno-style, before trying to scurry off into a nearby (because they’re always nearby) ventilation shaft. Okay, maybe not the ventilation shaft bit, but you get the idea. It’s really not a good game by anyone’s stretch of the imagination. Admittedly, all of this pain could have been avoided by fans holding off to read the reviews before purchasing, but as the press sites were embargoed until the actual day of release, many gamers (including chumps like me) excitedly (read: stupidly) rushed to pick the game up or had it pre-ordered like the fools we are. It became an industry standard reason why pre-ordering games is not a good idea.
Looking to the future, I don’t know if we’ll ever see a decent standalone tribute to Aliens in video game form, and, quite honestly, I’m not sure that we even need or really want one nowadays anyway. So many of the popular gaming franchises we have today have already borrowed so liberally and successfully from the Aliens action film blueprint – Halo, Quake, Gears of War, and Doom to name a few – that a specifically tailor-made Aliens shooting/action game feels almost unnecessary by this point.
Plus, like it or not, it’s kind of been largely done already in the Aliens Vs. Predator games. Unlike the AVP films that were released, some of the Alien Vs. Predator series of games were actually pretty good, usually on the human marine side of things at least (Aliens Vs. Predator 2 being my personal favourite). While not a dedicated Aliens game per se, the marine campaigns usually manage to offer some fun shooty-shooty bang-bang Xenomorph sections, which although they don’t exactly re-invent the shooter rulebook, are nonetheless entertaining if you’re a fan of either of the two mega Fox franchises.
Anyway, to wrap this prelude section up, that’s enough about my stupid spendings for today, but on a final point, I’ll leave Angry Joe’s humorous and spot-on review of the game here for more of the disappointing details (and, to be fair, some of the things the game did get right):
Get Away From Her You Bitch!
So a whole year before Isolation had even been announced, the damage had already been done to the Alien franchise in the gaming space; both to Colonial Marines itself and any lingering hopes for a future Aliens-themed game had been effectively nuked from orbit by critics and fans alike.
Not exactly ideal conditions for making a brand new creative endeavour in the Alien franchise then. However, much to everyone’s surprise, Creative Assembly were able to facehug the massive writhing body of disappointment and cynicism that was left in the wake of Colonial Marines, incubating a brand new experience in its predecessor’s still warm corpse (I know Facehuggers don’t attach to dead bodies, but just work with me on this one okay?)
Out from that mass of uncertainty ripped forth something amazing and new; a plucky and triumphant Hadley’s Hope in the dark looming shadow of the crashed promethean wreck of Gearbox’s failure. Developed by Creative Assembly, the game is, in my humble opinion, the finest game in the Alien franchise to date, and without a doubt the best Alien game you can play.
After such a commercial and critical failure, fans and critics needed an awful lot of convincing that Isolation wasn’t going to be just more of the deeply disappointing same. Far from it; Isolation is, if you will, the hulking jet black phoenix of claws, teeth and acid blood that’s risen from the carcinogenic flames of Colonial Marines, and in my opinion, it’s easily the best game of 2014, hands, claws and vicious spiked tail down. In a way, Isolation is like the hybrid Newborn creature at the end of Alien: Resurrection; it’s the dark and brooding sci-fi of the Alien franchise mixed with the tense scares of the survival horror genre – but unlike the Newborn, it’s a beautiful mix of styles that compliment each other so well.
If, like me, you get your masochistic kicks from being locked in what’s essentially a giant game-long horror house, then you’re in luck. In the words of the late great Donald Duck, “Boy oh fucking boy!” – you’ve come exactly to the right place. Alien: Isolation is an absolutely incredible game, and absolutely essential playing if you’re a horror game fan. The game is exceptional; in its vision, in its design, in the way it really manages to pull you in and really makes you feel right there and part and parcel of its horrifying universe. Whilst there are some aspects to it which I found to be slightly problematic, and places where the glossy finish of its finely polished exoskeleton fall away a tad, overall, my thoughts on Alien: Isolation are…well, I think some crude paraphrasing of the words of Ash are in order: It’s a damn near perfect organism, and truly one of the most unique and exhilarating horror experiences available in gaming today.
“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor…”
Purity is exactly the right word to use when describing the brave vision Creative Assembly had for Alien: Isolation, and just how well they managed to pull it off.
The game is a first person horror simulator, aimed at delivering a hardcore horror experience chiefly centred around the hardcore horror player. It’s a bold and risky move, particularly considering that this is Creative’s first go at a horror title, especially in an era when most mainstream horror titles tend to opt for tried and tested action/adventure gameplay simply dressed up in a horror skin to make it somewhat visually scary – i.e. The Evil Within.
It’s a risk that was well worth taking however, as Creative Assembly have not only managed to create a fantastic experience in Alien: Isolation in its own right, but also repaired a lot of the colossal damage that Colonial Marines wreaked upon the franchise in gaming circles. Like I say, I’m of the opinion that a straightforward Aliens first person shooter is probably a bit uninteresting and unnecessary by this point, but for those who do want such a game, Isolation will have definitely removed a great deal of the horrible aftertaste that Gearbox’s effort left in both fan’s and publisher’s mouths last February.
Anyway, enough about that piece of hot mess, and let’s talk about the awesomeness that is Isolation. In a bold divergence from previous Alien video game efforts, Isolation by and large strips you of the atypical space marine power armour and pulse rifles you’re familiar with, and plants you firmly in the cream coloured Converse Hi-Tops of a civilian engineer. But not just any engineer – and no, it’s not Isaac Clarke in his civilian attire before you ask. You play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley – incidentally the same Amanda Ripley that you see as an old woman in the photograph at the start of Aliens. And no, as entertaining as the thought might be to square off against the alien as an elderly OAP, Alien: Isolation thankfully takes place quite a number of years before Amanda starts drawing her pension and clattering about on her zimmerframe.
Set fifteen years after Ellen destroys the Nostromo in Alien, the twenty-six year-old Amanda (who now works for Weyland-Yutani as an engineer) is sent along with a recovery crew to retrieve the Nostromo’s flight recorder, which has been picked up by the decrepit Sevastopol Station (operated by a Weyland-Yutani competitor, Seegson, who deal primarily in second-rate synthetics), and hopefully find out what happened to her missing mother in the process.
Naturally, things quickly spiral out of control, and Amanda and her team discover that things have been going horribly wrong on the Sevastopol for quite a while. There’s frightened and dangerous humans scuttling about, terrified out of their minds and ready to shoot anything that darts out of the shadows. A multitude of murderous, malfunctioning Seegson synthetics – a cheaper line of synthetics that are of a much lower quality than Weyland-Yutani’s models – are strangely going berserk and coldly killing off survivors and anyone they consider to be breaking Sevastopol ‘protocols’. Last but certainly not least, there’s something else thudding around the cold, dark corridors of the Sevastopol…something not right, something…alien.
Not Just Another Bug Hut
In a refreshing change from past games based on James Cameron’s gung-ho sequel film, the design and creative vision for the game is an overtly big love letter to Ridley Scott’s original film. Rather than the objective being to shoot your way out guns akimbo, your aim in Isolation is beautifully simple; survive.
Alien: Isolation is designed to be an incredibly stressful survival experience, a painstakingly crafted virtual simulation of just what it would be like to be in that awful nightmare of a scenario yourself – trapped, alone and afraid whilst totally stressed out. As a result, it’s an extremely immersive and especially enjoyable gaming experience, one that’s full with horrific tension and dread pervading every moment.
The game is exceptionally difficult, and this is coming from someone who masochistically (read: idiotically) plays a lot of horror games on their top whack difficulty…well…when I’m feeling particularly brave that is. I’m not saying that trying to come across as some boasting dude-bro douchebag, it’s rather that I find that horror games in particular usually benefit from being played on the highest difficulty you feel capable of tackling, as you’ll often have an experience closer to the developers original intentions. For example, playing through something like Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within on the Nightmare setting makes that game significantly more challenging and fun to play than on the easier difficulties, and, to draw from another Mikami example, Resident Evil feels like an entirely different game depending on what difficulty you play on.
The same can’t really be said for Alien: Isolation. For the most part, the game still sets the bar pretty high when it comes to difficulty, no matter what setting you pick (although technically there is now a recently patched in exception to this, but I’ll discuss that mode a bit further in).
In this sense, I consider Alien: Isolation to be the Dark Souls of the horror genre (okay, look, I know that’s a rather hackneyed expression these days, but just go with me here). It’s punishing, frustrating, and at times, seemingly impossible. But, just like how From Software’s acclaimed series has become evangelised in the eyes of its devoted fans for its unforgiving difficulty, I can’t sing high enough praises for Creative Assembly’s bold decision with Isolation to focus on delivering a hardcore Alien experience for diehard fans, potentially at the cost of losing the casual audience’s interest. Creative Assembly were determined to make their game the most fiendish and realistic simulation of being stalked by an Xenomorph; it’s a nightmare gauntlet of stress, tension and blind panic – which to be honest, is certainly not for everyone.
The gameplay takes the shape of a first person survival/exploration horror game, very much in the style of games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast. While some first person shooter elements are thrown into the mix from time to time, the emphasis is firmly on stealth, hiding and exploration over shooting. Amanda is an engineer, therefore not combat trained and armed to the teeth for extensive intergalactic combat like your average colonial marine, no, instead she relies more on her wits and technological wizardry to navigate the crumbling Sevastopol Station in one piece.
In fact, at times, it’s almost helpful to try and forget that you’re playing a survival horror game, and to pretend that you’re, once again, donning Big Boss/Solid Snake’s skin-tight sneaking suit, and playing a first person stealth title. Only without the cardboard boxes, chaff grenades and risqué adult magazines to distract the alien with, unfortunately. However, being an engineer, Amanda is rather good at MacGyvering together rudimentary devices to help her survive, such as smoke bombs to blind humans, EMP mines to short-circuit Working Joes and noisemaker grenades to lure the alien away from her current position.
As a result, whilst playing, you’ll need to be constantly collecting scrap and machine parts and cobbling together the right devices to survive each perilous situation the game throws at you. The games resource system has a similar feel to The Last Of Us, where the same sets of resources are required to build multiple devices, requiring you to pick and choose the right item for the right context. Just like in Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, where gambling with the short term needs versus long term strategy was vital to getting through Joel and Ellie’s journey, it’s essential to help Amanda survive her’s as well. Do you save those sensors and blasting caps you’ve been hoarding for a bigger, more costly specialised projects such as pipe bombs or EMP mines, or is it better to make more of the smaller, cheaper throwables which are a bit more generally suited against all enemies?
Unlike Metal Gear Solid or The Last Of Us however, detection in Isolation is practically synonymous with death. Get caught by the alien and you’re absolutely screwed, but even just getting cornered by a synthetic or even spotted by a gun-toting human is still very bad news, and it’s practically lights out. In particular, the early hours of the game, where you’ve practically got no actual firearms and usually not enough resources to make an abundance of jerry-rigged survival items pack some of the most intense and pulse-pounding panic-inducing experiences that I’ve experienced in a horror game for a long while.
On this note, one of the common misnomers about the game that I think is worth pointing out early on is that though it’s marketed as a scary and really frightening game, it’s not really. If we’re getting nit-picky, I’d personally describe Isolation as more of an intensely stressful yet exhilarating experience rather than as a prototypical spine-tingling fright-fest.
While there certainly are moments in Isolation (both dynamic and scripted) that will make you leap out of your skin, personally, I don’t think that it is a particularly scary game. Not that that’s a bad thing by any means, it’s just that it’s simply not designed to be your typical monster-closet party or jump scare fright-a-thon, nor a brooding dark psychological horror mind-fuck. It’s pretty special in this regard I reckon, as it feels quite unlike any other horror game I’ve previously played.
Alien: Isolation is extremely good at being able to quickly ratchet the tension up to absolutely unbearable levels, making it both nerve-rackingly uncomfortable and electrifyingly exciting to play. The way Isolation manages to whip you up into an unbearable pressure cooker of stress is nothing short of incredible. As I mentioned above, its closest counterpart is probably Red Barrels’ excellent Outlast; both games rely on creating an overwhelmingly powerful build up of dread, one that’s so intense in its execution and release that you end up getting so worked up and stressed out that you actually stop being scared and just start blind panicking. Isolation makes you panic to such a degree that you’re having to fight your screaming instincts and reflexes just as much, if not more so than the horrors pursuing you.
In other words, from my own point of view, the age old fear of the unknown is what typically (and predictably) gets my teeth a-chattering in horror games, and with a creature like the alien, which has become such an increasingly popular cultural icon over the years since it’s debut, I actually find it quite hard to be genuinely afraid of it to the same degree that I originally was when I first saw Alien. Plus, the clue is in the title, so it doesn’t exactly come as a shock to find that you’re going to be spending a lot of time being stalked by H.R. Geiger’s beloved creation. However, the first few hours of your Isolation will definitely test your survival horror mettle to the extreme.
But just why exactly is the game so hard, stressful and intense then, I hear you ask? Well, unsurprisingly, it’s because of that ingeniously devious Xenomorph AI. In fact, that’s a slightly wrong distinction; all the AIs in the game run under the same umbrella system as it were, and therefore they are all impressive in their own special ways. But it’s that damn Xenomorph AI that will naturally have you the most worried and on edge as you play.
The alien is, of course, the star of the show. From the second you first encounter it, you won’t believe just how clever and cunning its AI is. In fact, the first time I came across the Alien in the game, I was extremely cocky and naively unprepared.
To put it another way, I didn’t last long.
The first time that the creature gracefully unfurled itself from the overhead vents of the Sevastopol, I was absolutely spellbound with dread. Instantly freezing to the spot, I watched its sinuously sleek black musculature ripple and slide out from the vent and pad gently down onto the cold metal floor. Pausing for a brief moment under the harsh strip lighting, as if to admire its own liquid grace, the creature slowly raised up off its ribbed haunches, its elongated head rising as it let out a long sustained sibilant hiss. It was an utterly terrifying moment that I’ll probably have burned onto my retinas for the rest of my gaming life.
As it took in the cold dark environs of the Sevastopol, it started to prowl around the room in search of its prey. Despite my silent horror/reverie a few seconds earlier, foolishly, I wasn’t all that immediately concerned, thinking that with it being so early on in the game, I’d be okay if I didn’t do anything stupid. Being a rather precocious bastard, I shuffled further forward into the brightly lit open waiting room in a stupidly nonchalantly manner, loosely hugging nearby walls and cover all the while confidently assuming that the alien couldn’t possibly have sensed me yet.
That was, until I heard a loud rasping hiss, followed quickly by a piggish squeal of delight; an animalistic announcement that the alien had indeed seen me, and I felt the cold rush of fear flood into my hands and feet. It was only then that I realised (altogether far too late at this stage) that I wasn’t looking at this specimen down the iron sights of a trusty pulse rifle…at which point I tried to run, thinking it couldn’t possibly have seen me yet. How wrong I was…
This is the first Alien-based game that I’ve played that I feel has truly managed to adequately capture the proper size and scale of the Xenomorph. She towers over you at a colossal eight feet tall. It’s a genuinely terrifying sight to see the alien in its accurate proportions up close, and the early hours of the game easily provide some of the strongest and most memorable moments, as you’re able to do little other than simply just hide from this towering monstrosity. You feel woefully outclassed by this towering apex predator fright from the word go…or, perhaps more appropriately, the word “Arrrrgh!”
Unlike the vast majority of other games in the franchise where the aliens slither about on the walls and ceilings, this monster stalking you throughout the Sevastopol walks upright on its legs. Hearing its heavy thundering footsteps thudding loudly on the metallic floors creates unbearable tension. Watching the creature’s vicious tail rasping along the off-white walls when you’re hiding, often with it being only mere inches away from brushing your face and legs, can make you want to run screaming for your life. Fighting the urge to not completely freak out when the alien is nearby takes an awful lot of practice and some seriously steely nerves, but it’s something that will have to be done if you want to make it through even the earliest missions.
In addition, learning just what the alien picks up on and how it tracks you is all part of the frightful fun. Much like in Resident Evil 3, when the shock of Nemesis breaking into the room behind you snarling “S.T.A.R.S.!” felt like a massive and horrifying invasion of player privacy, trying not to panic when you hear the beast thud down in the same room as you is a similarly petrifying experience.
Of course, this wouldn’t be an Alien game without the trademark motion tracker in your sweaty panicking mitts, and it’s your primary method of keeping rough tabs on the serpentine beast stalking you, not to mention other undesirables strolling around the Sevastopol. Quite possibly one of the scariest noises heard in a horror film/game, the minimalistic pings on the grainy screen of the motion tracker are your only way of keeping track of whatever threats are crawling or thudding around out of your line of sight.
The tracker also handily doubles up as your objective waypoint navigator, giving you an approximate sense of where you need to be heading at a glance. When it’s equipped, you can choose to focus on the tracker’s display, which cleverly blurs your long-distance vision as a trade-off, or you can glance upwards from the display by pressing the left trigger to shift the focus back to your environment, but in turn this now blurs the tracker’s display. It’s a clever balancing act, as it means you can never visually cover all the bases at once.
Crucially, the motion tracker is diegetic; in other words, it means that your enemies can hear its quiet pings too if they are close enough. This makes hiding even more of a nail-biting buttock-clenching fright fest; naturally I found this out the hard way…
What I found particularly interesting about using the motion tracker’s design is that if you rely on it solely as your main observational tool, you are most likely going to end up as a human shaped donner kebab on the Xeno’s tail in next to no time. Unlike in the films where the characters almost constantly have the trackers out and beeping away, as my above clip hopefully demonstrates, having your eyes glued to it for anything more than a quick glance can prove to be a very costly mistake.
During the early hours of the game, I spent a great deal of my time hiding in lockers, like in that humiliating clip above, peering through the slats and not daring to come out (not by the hairs on my chinny-fucking-chin-chin) for fear of bumping into whatever is out there making those chilling incessant blips on the tracker.
However, you quickly learn that if you just hang around waiting for the coast to be clear, that you’re going to be waiting an absolute eternity, and most likely picked off if you repeatedly stay in the same location or the same types of hiding spaces. Much like Outlast, hiding in the specific button prompt hiding places such as the lockers or storage boxes isn’t ideal, and they are kind of a false economy in many ways. They’re often located in awkward places, leaving you with a severely restricted view of your surroundings and, crucially, a reduced audial awareness; not to mention that just the basic animations of entering and leaving your hiding spot can eat up precious seconds of valuable hiding time, as well as creating more unwanted noise. Not only that, the alien will actually tend to pick up on the sorts of places where you most often try to hide; consistently make a bee-line for the lockers and the alien will get the impression that you like to cower in them Otacon style, probably also with a patch of urine soaking through your trousers.
As a result, I found using cover by manually crouching behind environmental props (with desperately crossed fingers), or crawling under obstacles such as desks and hospital gurneys when possible to be a much safer bet. These allow you to potentially correct your manoeuvres through tricky to cross open spaces if threats are extremely close by, and offer you altogether better vantage points from which to lob items and stage diversions so you can better escape.
Regardless of when and where you choose to do your cowering, once you pluck up the courage to leave your hiding place, you need to use both your eyes and particularly your ears if you’re going to make it out alive.
They’re In The Goddamned Walls!
Speaking of those lovely sound receptacles we call ears, sound in a horror game is, of course, an absolutely crucial facet of the design. It’s a pleasure to say that Alien: Isolation has a meticulous level of attention to detail in the audio department. The run-down Sevastopol station is a faltering, rattling fortress of metal, plastic, wires and fibreglass being torn apart at its seams, and the care and attention that Creative Assembly’s audio engineers have lavished on making this dilapidated space station sound appropriately broken and battered is incredibly impressive.
Machinery clanks and groans as you squeeze through ventilation shafts, steam pipes (that are often sneakily designed to look like the alien’s sleek cranium) explosively hiss at your passage at the most inopportune times, and the distant muffled booms and the bumpy decompressive thuds of the station being violently buffeted about in it’s orbit can easily be mistaken for the muscular thuds of the Xenomorph closing up on you.
To invoke yet another comparison to Outlast again, like that game’s player protagonist Miles Upshur, Amanda has a fully rendered body and limbs, further adding to the simulation immersion, and she will also get startled, cry out in shock and pain and whimper in fright when things are getting unbearably frightening or painful onscreen. Her voice actor, Andrea Deck, does a great job of imbuing the character with a believable and empathetic persona, a scared but determined survivor. She’s much more frightened and spooked by events than her more cool under pressure mother Ellen in the films, which allows players to feel total empathy with her (as they are probably just as scared and stressed as she is).
Of particular importance is being able to tell when the Alien is wandering around in the vents above you (usually not an immediate threat), thudding along a corridor (an extremely immediate threat), or, most mischievously, when it’s sneakily camping in ceiling ducts and waiting for you to nonchalantly stroll underneath it. If you can play with a decent set of headphones or a quality surround-sound speaker set up, you’ll have a significantly improved experience from both an audio and gameplay perspective (and you’ll probably live a lot longer too). If you don’t…well, let’s just say you’re in for a world of pain. Especially if you haven’t saved in a while…
You see, your greatest fear in Alien: Isolation, apart from the hulking black eyeless monster mercilessly stalking you, the hordes of glitching android goons going berserk and eager to squeeze the life out of you, and the other scared, twitchy and trigger-happy human survivors hiding in the darkness of the Sevastopol station, is that of losing progress. Alien: Isolation uses an old manual saving system – you can only save your progress at designated in-game save points, the Sevastopol’s payphone boxes. This means no automatic checkpoints or continuous autosaves running in the background; if you get killed in Isolation, you have to go right back to your last save. Considering that these pay phones are few and far between, and often pretty spread out at the best of times, this means that a death can cost you an awfully big chunk of time. Particularly in the earlier hours of the game, it’s often at least twenty minutes of lost time you’ll have to make up when killed, or longer if you’re unlucky.
This decision to go with a manual, in-game saving system, is, in my opinion, an absolutely genius move, as it pairs up so beautifully with the type of atmosphere and story the game hopes to immerse you in. Although it is understandably a point of intense contention amongst players – checkpoints and autosaves are second nature for many younger gamers today, so having those safety nets taken away is quite a startling contrast – I for one thought it was an essential feature, one that is deeply fundamental to successfully anchoring and absorbing the player in the simulation, fully plugged into the matrix if you will.
Losing your progress is the video game equivalent of death for the player, and at the heart of it, this is a large part of what you actually fear most when playing a game, no matter the genre or difficulty. Death is the closest thing to a punishment you can pretty much get in a game. You desperately don’t want to die, as it means that you’ll have to replay and redo everything you’ve accomplished since your last save. As a result, modern games try and minimise the amount of replaying you’ll have to do – using features such as the aforementioned checkpoints and autosaves to stop players getting frustrated at having to replay large swathes of the game again after a death/failure.
However, one of the few genres in gaming where a developer can really push the difficulty level beyond what’s typically comfortable for the majority of players and cultivate an attitude of perseverance in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds is the horror genre. By its very nature, it’s a design choice that appeals directly to the hardcore survival horror gamer first and foremost.
Consequently, you’ll either love or hate the manual save system. Much like Marmite for that matter. I for one love the savoury tang that I get when I crack open a fresh pot of the tasty toast condiment, and incidentally I also love the feeling that I know that I absolutely have to get to the next phone booth without being eviscerated, otherwise I’m going to lose everything I’ve done since my last save.
It’s a double-edged sword (much like any sword when you think about it actually) from a design perspective; do you cater to players who want greater handholding and friendly checkpoint safety nets in their experience, or do you balance things to better accommodate the hardcore masochistic horror game audience who want a punishing challenge with plenty of risk along the way? Although it might prove problematic for some, on the whole I think that the decision to strip away the autosaves and checkpoints that proliferate modern games was totally the right one for this experience, and it compliments the story and gameplay extremely well.
Alien: Isolation‘s brutal combination of a cunning alien AI, a weak vulnerable player protagonist and limited saving opportunities is thus the closest and most direct way of getting you to truly empathise and roleplay as Amanda Ripley. Yes, it can be controller-destroyingly frustrating when you’re seconds away from getting a save when you’re hoisted into an air vent or phallically impaled with the alien’s tail from behind, but that’s kind of the whole idea. You’re meant to be scared; you’re meant to be feeling vulnerable and you’re meant to be constantly dreading being discovered and killed at any moment – just like Amanda in the reality of the game. This design choice to go with a manual save system perfectly aligns the player’s desires and goals with that of the protagonist, and it does an incredible job of really pulling you into the world and universe of the game. She’s only got one chance, and whilst you’re playing, it’ll feel like you do as well.
Yes, this is a hard game. Yes, you will pull your hair out in controller-destroying levels of frustration and scream in annoyance rather than fright when that Xeno yanks you clean out of a wall vent, or bites through your cranium for the umpteenth time. But eventually…eventually, you’ll start to improve.
In a similar fashion to the way Dark Souls players always harp on about that franchise’s rule-driven gameplay, Alien: Isolation has its own important rules to learn. What at first might feel like a futile game of punishing chance will, with a bit of practice and patience (not to mention strong nerves), eventually feel like an intricate and pulse-pounding game of space cat and mouse. Only with a massive shiny black cat with sharper claws and retractable inner-jaws, and a mouse that can cobble together rudimentary gadgets on the fly, but you get the idea.
Once you’ve submitted to the inevitable masochistic hazing of fright and frustration that is the first few hours of the game, you’ll soon have your own rules and mantras drawn up in your head that you will religiously stick to, in order to prevent becoming alien food quite so frequently. Never Run. Avoid hiding in lockers if possible. Always keep your eyes peeled and your ears open. Never ever run. Attract the alien with noisemakers to deal with hostile human threats. Never ever, ever run. Hide in the vents to lose the synths. NEVER FUCKING RUN. NOT EVEN ONCE. NEVER!
As you get more familiar with the way the alien AI in particular works, the less you’ll find yourself being killed over and over again. After sinking a good few hours into the game and getting to grips with its mechanics, most of the times when I’d be killed would be my own fault; a momentary lapse in concentration here, a foolish mistake there or an incredibly basic no-no every now and again – such as RUNNING! NEVER EVER DO IT!
However, on the flipside, it is also possible to encounter glitches where the alien seemingly has a stroke and pauses mid-game, or gets stuck for some reason in the environment. I did encounter one annoying glitch where the alien ended up being stuck paused in front of a panicking gun-happy survivor I desperately needed the beast to eviscerate so I could move past, only for some reason it didn’t want to play ball anymore so to speak. It was pretty much the only instance where I actually wanted the creature to be even more lethal than it already is…or perhaps as this particular clip below shows, was.
Thankfully, a quick pipebomb throw soon sorted out all my troubles in one fell (but messy) swoop.
Happiness Is A Smoking Door Handle
Long before I was chucking high explosives at the alien’s shiny phallic head however, a great deal of my enjoyment of the game actually came purely from just exploring the Sevastopol station in a Gone Home open-ended manner, and getting caught up in the game’s beautiful design and art direction. The simulation-like focus of the game, combined with the work of Creative Assembly’s environmental artists and their impeccable attention to detail, have made the game not only a fantastic piece of Alien fan service, but also an engrossing and intricate metroidvania-style adventure.
In fact, CA have subsequently released a patch for the game which updates it with two more difficulty modes – an even harder Nightmare mode with a nigh-on sentient alien AI and even fewer resources, plus a Novice mode, which makes the alien much less curious and absent minded, with more resources in the environment to scavenge and more health for Ripley. Whilst you can’t exactly just doss about in Novice – the alien, even though it’s significantly lobotomised and less cunning, will still end you just as rapidly if it finds you – this is a great mode if you just want to go and explore the station at your own pace, and immerse yourself in activities that you really can’t afford to do on higher difficulties (such as reading the extended computer logs) without having to worry too much about a surprise abrupt head hole-punching to interrupt you.
The attention to even the smallest of details make Isolation‘s most basic mechanics incredibly enjoyable moments to be savoured at every opportunity. I never thought I’d say this, but the quick time events in Isolation when interacting with tech in the game are incredibly satisfying, tangible and weighty, and some of my favourite moments in the game. It’s true – I’m being deadly serious. Removing a heavy door clamp, pulling door release levers, charging generators, diverting power switches or hoisting out and priming nuclear cores all feel like appropriately stiff and bulky manoeuvres on your controller, ones that feel ever so appropriate in the Alien universe. They make navigating the Sevastopol a real joy, with each new door panel to cut open and bulky 1970’s style computer terminal to hack genuinely feels like you could be doing it yourself. It’s incredibly immersive, and attention to such minute and mundane operations like these really provide a fantastic contrast to the really stressful and horrific moments when everything is kicking off.
What tops off all these lovely interactive sequences is that the entirety of the Sevastopol is explorable throughout the vast majority of the game. It’s essentially a deep space version of Spenser Mansion castle, only much bigger, with a nightmarish alien stalking your every move, and murderous androids in the place of zombies. New tools that you acquire along the way, such as improved blowtorches and higher clearance hacking devices allow you to access new parts of the station, and completing the on-going objectives will usually unlock new areas for you to explore as well.
This is a great move, as it allows you at pretty much any point to return to a previously explored area to pick up any supplies you may have missed on your first go through, get to a hidden secret spot you might have clocked earlier or to try and find a safer alternative path to your next objective. As a result, there’s no level structure as such when playing, just different missions and objectives to carry out as you progress through the game. The interconnectivity and permanence of the various structures and departments of the Sevastopol really help to give the station a concrete and realistic sense of place.
What’s more, just because you’ve ‘beaten’ or completed an area doesn’t mean that it’s safe. Upon returning to a previously explored location, you might now find that a bunch of scared humans are hiding out there, the Working Joes might be doing routine patrols through there at the time, and you can bet your bottom dollar that your friendly neighbourhood Xeno is never too far away, only too happy to scuttle out of an overhead vent to give you an impromptu cuddle. You can never afford to relax or drop your guard, even in familiar or previously safe spots.
Frighteningly, that also includes whilst in those satisfying interactions with items and doors in the environment. In a lot of other horror games, you are often typically granted a temporary period of invulnerability when performing mandatory actions or activating gameplay specific objects, such as opening doors or activating a save point. These features are so ingrained into some games that it’s really easy to take them for granted without realising it, and it can actually be really hard to recognise them after a while.
In fact, quite often, these transitionary moments can usually be exploited to the player’s advantage in a lot of cases; in Resident Evil: Revelations for example, you can often temporarily avoid a multi-tentacled blow to Jill Valentine’s face by quickly opening a nearby door, as you are briefly invincible throughout the door opening animation. We are so accustomed as players to assuming we’re safe when performing the more ‘gamey’ parts of a title, that it takes a game like Isolation to tear down some of these long held adages we hold to be true and shred them to pieces.
While Ms. Valentine can use doors to grant herself temporal invulnerability, there’s no such luck for Amanda on the Sevastopol. Your constant vulnerability as Amanda Ripley is absolutely one of Alien: Isolation‘s many great strengths. You can be killed at any time when trying to navigate the Sevastopol, and you have to be constantly on your guard.
For example, at various points in your sneaking around the nightmarish Sevastopol, you’ll need to cut open door and vent panels with your blowtorch, and hack door keypad algorithms with your hack tool, often while a very real and physical threat is extremely close by. Tracing a cutting outline through a door panel with your blow torch or matching a basic sequence of 8-bit blocky symbols feel like overly simplistic minigames on their own, but when the alien or another threat is nigh, these activities can quickly start to feel like fiendish SAW traps of terror, particularly when you know you have to get that next door open RIGHT FUCKING NOW, or face another deadly disembowelling from behind. It’s a painfully futile and desperate exercise in trying to keep calm under pressure, and the adrenaline rush when you manage to just escape the snapping double jaws of death once again is unbelievably satisfying.
It’s An Animal. Animals Are Afraid Of Fire…
Though Amanda does acquire a fair selection of tools and weapons over the course of the game (in addition to the devices and gizmos that she rustles up on the fly), you’ll still feel vulnerable and defenceless for the most part. Whilst wielding weaponry is certainly a valid and sometimes necessary option at certain points, firing off a gun or using a device usually brings the alien down on your head faster than you can say “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
It’ll also be even faster than you can say “OH FUCK!”
Having no substantial firearms or ammo in the early portions of the game, and ultimately nothing close to hand that can take the alien out of action for good is a really inspired design choice, and one that’s not often explored in the Alien universe; one that’s well known for its muscly hardass marines with fancy pulse rifles tactical smartguns and an unlimited well of gruff gung-ho bravado.
Whilst there are some traditional shooter sections and various firearms that gradually become available to you as you progress through the game (my personal favourite being a meaty bolt gun which is perfect for scalping Working Joes), you quickly learn that combat really isn’t a viable option if you want to survive for longer than five minutes. Five minutes is being quite generous actually; I found that firing my revolver would dramatically reduce my life expectancy to about minus thirty seconds and counting.
This isn’t necessarily a problem when trying to sneak past a rag-tag bunch of humans, or slink past the Xeno as silently as possible, but when you’re directly confronted by a human or synth aggressor when the alien is also nearby, you’re faced with a tricky dilemma. Do you try and attempt to gun down the killable enemies first and try to hide before the alien arrives, or is it better to make a break for it and hope you’re not detected by either party?
Whilst playing stealthily is nearly always the best option no matter the threat you’re faced with, there are sometimes choice opportunities to play the different enemies off against each other, which is both amusing and really helpful to your cause. Fling a noisemaker into a pack of humans and get ready to watch the blood fly as the alien takes them out for you; it’s a dog eat dog (or should that be Xeno eat dog?) world on the Sevastopol.
The main gamechanger that happens in the weaponry department comes when you acquire the flamethrower, whereby the game shifts the balance of power quite significantly more in your favour. Perhaps, just a little too much in your favour. With the flamethrower in your possession, you stand a significantly better chance of surviving the wickedly cunning AI’s antics than before. Delivering short quick bursts of flame to its shiny domed head will often stop the alien in its tracks, usually forcing it to rapidly leave the area via a nearby vent post-haste, allowing you to be a tad more confident as you make your way through the Sevastopol. In fact, if you’re feeling confident and provided you’ve got plenty of fuel and know what you’re doing, then you can actually confront the alien in a restricted sense; rather than skulking around in the shadows, you can brazenly spray your way down a corridor, spurting a fiery onslaught of justice at your interloper if she decides to get too close.
Thus, your relationship with the alien becomes less one of predator and helpless prey, and almost equal adversaries. Almost being the crucial word. Flamethrower ammo is sufficiently scarce throughout the game however, so even though wielding the flamethrower can feel like you’ve been granted alien immunity at times, it’s often a fleeting feeling, and the weapon feels much more like a desperate last line of defence in your limited arsenal rather than an out and out weapon as it were. Plus, when you do give the alien a taste of its own medicine in the form of a fuck-you-flambé, it’ll only encourage it to come back and search for you, even more diligently and pissed off than before. Like with the other weapons, having to actually use the flamethrower is nearly always bad news, and something you don’t throw around lightly unless you really have to.
This Is Ripley…Signing Off
So, after all these pages and pages of verbal gushing from me, it really must be a perfect organism in my opinion then eh?
Well…not quite. The slight gripe that I had with the game was that it can feel a tad too long at times – which personally feels like a stupid point to raise I have to say, but to be fair, it is quite a long sustained ride that you’re in for – my own first playthrough clocked in at about twenty five hours in total. With many games being released these days with story modes that can be finished in a few quick hours, or ones that have entirely jettisoned their story elements altogether in favour of multiplayer mayhem, what’s wrong with a game that relishes telling a longer and more substantial story then you might well ask?
Well, perhaps it’s not particularly the length of the game as such, but rather the pacing of it. Generally, I thought that the game was in fact, paced extremely well. Threats are introduced gradually at first; allowing you to get a feel for each attacker’s modus operandi, before terrifying combinations of human, machine and alien are thrown at you all at once.
Unfortunately, not all of those twenty to thirty hours you’ll spend in Isolation are as thrilling and intense as your early ones. Some sections really drag on for quite a bit, and things can’t help but start to feel quite bloated after a while. In particular, what doesn’t help is the fact that the game reaches an intense climax approximately halfway through, and then there’s subsequently a rather woolly period in the middle in which the alien isn’t a threat for an extended period of time. The atmosphere becomes tense in other ways, but, as you might imagine for a game that’s named after said alien, that things just aren’t quite as gut-churningly stressful without ol’ two jaws stalking you throughout the dark catacombs of the Sevastopol. As entertaining and tense as it is to sneak past just humans and Working Joes for a while, they don’t have a comparable onscreen presence, or elicit anything near the same panic response in the player that the alien does.
Thankfully, like a ripened Chest-Burster tearing through the fleshy fibres of John Hurt’s chest cavity, your deadly nemesis does burst back onto the scene eventually. I naturally don’t want to go into spoilers here of course, but I will say that fans of Ridley Scott’s original Alien Directors’ Cut may have a good idea of just how far things head south in the later stages of the game.
Combine these pacing issues with the game’s brutal difficulty, and it’s the sort of thing that I can imagine could quite quickly feel like an overwhelming and frustrating obstacle to a lot of players. As you will die over and over again, even on subsequent playthroughs, the game can leave you feeling exasperated when you’re first getting used to everything and learning the rules. Having to replay the same fifteen to twenty minute (if not longer) segment of gameplay over and over again if you’re killed before getting to that crucial save point once again can really sap the tension out of that particular segment.
What’s more is that despite the long campaign run-time, and the many MANY violent deaths you’ll have experienced along the way, the game unfortunately doesn’t do a great job of tying things up narratively at the end. It unfortunately feels like another classic case of sequel baiting; something directly out of the Colonial Marines playbook if I’m being honest. Rather than a satisfying self-contained ending, you’re left with an annoying ‘to be continued’ sort of ellipsis. Whilst I’m pleased that this hopefully means that Creative Assembly are keen to develop a sequel, it is regrettably a bit of an anti-climax to say the least after what was an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of a game.
However, as a big fan of the Alien universe and the entire experience of Isolation as a horror simulator (can you tell I enjoyed the game an awful lot yet?), I saw the long length of the game as nothing but a positive thing in my eyes myself. You got the impression that Creative Assembly were allowed to write and design their Isolation story exactly how they wanted it to be, with little external pressure or interference from publisher SEGA or 20th Century Fox to make cuts or alterations to their creative vision – which is such a rare and unheard of thing in this industry.
There’s even a delightful bit of extra story fan service included about halfway through the game, that mimics a particular early section of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film (and one of his later ones as well, wink wink), which isn’t necessarily essential to the main gameplay, it nonetheless is a nice touch for fans of the Alien franchise.
The game’s story never feels rushed or condensed, and I found that the longer than usual playtime allowed the plot to unfold naturally, and feel significantly less ‘gamified’ than similar titles I’ve recently played. Apart from the clipped off ending, I found the game’s long length to be an extremely refreshing change; it’s so nice to play a dedicated singleplayer experience, particularly in this era of bolted-on always online multiplayer modes.
So, to conclude, the twenty-five hours it roughly took me to do my first playthrough was such an extremely enjoyable marathon of simultaneous fun, frights and stress that I’ll never forget, and one that I’ll deeply treasure and hold up as a benchmark for future survival horror titles I’ll get my greasy mitts on.
Anyway, this is Tom…the last survivor of Alien: Isolation…signing off.